Part 21 - Word Gets Around
It had been a long, stressful day for Twilight Sparkle.
As soon as Professor Destiny and his cohort had been dragged off to the guardhouse and the princesses had taken their leave, a veritable stampede of reporters had galloped onto the field and surrounded the owners and staff of Harmony Aeronautics in a tumult of questions, strobing flash bulbs, and the scribbling of pencils on pads.
Rarity had stepped forward in her inimitable fashion and soon had the clamoring herd of press ponies eating out of her hoof, but despite the elegant fashionista's best efforts a torrent of inquiries were being relentlessly directed at Twilight as well, putting her even more on the spot than she'd been with the pegasi of Ponyville.
The worst part of the whole affair was that it had been agonizingly superficial. Any time the scholarly unicorn had found herself warming up to an answer she was giving, a glazed look in the eyes of the questioner, or a gentle nudge and shake of the head from Rarity would tell her to dial back on the data and stick to infuriatingly vague generalities or baseless speculation. She was positively dreading what mangled accounts would be landing on the doorsteps of Equestria the following morning beneath smiling photos of Pip wearing the Harmony Harness.
The questioning had continued that night at the banquet, which took place at the opulent residence of Princess Cadance and Shining Armor, and included Twilight's parents as well as her aunt, a couple of cousins, and some close friends of the Sparkle and Mi Amore families from Canterlot.
Inevitably, the first question out of her kinfolks' mouths was good-naturedly asking her whether she'd finally taken leave of her senses in accepting the Professor's challenge. Once that particular formality was out of the way, the usual barrage of inquiries about what she and her company were going to do and how she thought things would go ensued, with the expectation of yet more vague generalities and baseless speculation. The fact that it was coming from loved ones who were trying in their way to offer their support made it all the harder for Twilight, as she had to fight every urge to be brusque, crabby, or dismissive.
Her nieces in particular were relentless in their enthusiasm, chattering like a little clutch of magpies about every possible aspect of the upcoming race and peppering their aunt with still more questions. Normally, it would have thoroughly charmed the lavender mare and lightened her heart, but tonight after everything it just made her feel tired all over. She silently thanked Celestia when her brother finally took pity on her and ushered his daughters off to play with their honorary cousin Spike.
Rarity had also done yeomane duty in keeping things light and convivial through the course of the evening, her ready charm and scintillating wit providing ample cover for her business partner's growing moodiness. After dinner had finished and the desert and coffee service had been cleared away, the alabaster unicorn had traded a meaningful look with their hostess Princess Cadance, and had leaned in to quietly suggest that Twilight retire for the evening after Dulcet, Auspice, and Serendipity had been sent to bed. The lavender scholar happily took advantage of the opportunity, retreating to one of the manor house's guest rooms after kissing her nieces good night and bidding her fond regards to her friends and family.
Finally alone, she let her mane loose and slipped out of the semi-formal stole and saddle dress that her elegant business partner, in her characteristic generosity, had provided for the evening. Her horn glittered with purple sparkles as lamps were lit and the large windows overlooking the central courtyard of her brother and sister in law's house were thrown open, filling the room with soft, clear light and the silvery rustling of the leaves of the transplanted grove of crystal berry bushes that graced Cadance's garden.
Twilight climbed up onto the feather bed, heaving a luxurious sigh as she nestled in among the stacks of books that she'd asked Spike to pull from Cadance and Shining Armor's modest library and leave in her room shortly after they'd arrived. She lifted a large tome of Equestrian history from the pile and cracked it open, breathing deeply of the perfume of ink and old paper.
Now, at last, she could relax.
A soft chuckle sounded from the window as a surging breeze jingled the bushes outside, and the lavender mare looked up from her reading, her ears perked in mild alarm. Her gaze met a pair of merry turquoise eyes smiling from among a miniature nebula of tiny, glittering stars that flowed on imperceptible winds around the crowned head of a dusky winged silhouette.
The shadowy figure greeted her warmly. "Hey there, Twi. I can see from the height of your book fort that you've been having quite the long day."
Twilight let out a weary sigh, as she smiled fondly at the princess of the night. "Hi, Luna. Yeah, it's been... 'interesting' is the term your sister seems to prefer." She rubbed her temple with the tip of a hoof. "I'd use a few other choice words, but none of 'em are really fit for royal ears."
The princess tossed her head with a gentle laugh as she floated in through the window, her silver shod hooves touching lightly down on the geometric carpet. "You'd be surprised, kiddo, at some of the words that have passed these ears, and these lips too, sometimes at royal Canterlot volume."
She crossed over to stand in the glow of Twilight's reading lamps. "Well, the sort of days that Tia calls 'interesting' are just the thing my nights are meant to smooth over."
Her long, tapering horn glimmered as she borrowed some cushions from the room's couch and piled them beside the bed, settling herself down with a rustle of her wings. "I don't want to keep you up too late, I just wanted to stop in and see how you were doing after today's kerfluffle."
Twilight nodded toward the books around her. "Well, as you can see I'm pretty much following my standard procedure when trouble rears its ugly head." She drew herself up in a mock heroic pose, jabbing a hoof skyward. "Quickly! To the library! Hi ho Twilight! Away!"
Luna let out a giggle as she made herself comfortable. "Read, Twilight! Read like the wind!"
The lavender mare laughed. "I will vanquish this challenge with my power of literacy!"
The dusky princess of the night let out a chuckle and a sigh. "So whatcha readin', anyhow?"
Twilight shrugged, pawing lightly at the tome in front of her. "Oh, I was just trying to get some background on the Grand Pegathalon. I was starting with some history before digging into Shiney's sports almanacs, but it's been kind of vague so far. Apparently the pegasi have been doing it for so long they've forgotten why they started."
She met Luna's gaze. "You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
The regent of the moon rolled her eyes. "Well of course I'd know about it, I was there when it happened. Or at least, I was at the start of the first flying of what would turn into the Pegathalon."
An eager grin spread across Twilight's face as she flipped the cover of the tome in front of her closed with her magic. Luna smiled warmly at the scholarly unicorn's rapt attention. "Okay, well, it all started when Tia and I finally knocked Discord's patchwork patoot off of the throne using the Elements of Harmony."
Her dark indigo face became grave as old, painful memories came to the surface. "I won't bring you down with all the grisly details, but it was a long, drawn out war, and it was pretty touch and go for a lot of it. You never knew who was on your side, or whether you were winning or losing when the enemy could just flip the game board over whenever he felt like it."
She gave a halting shrug as she glanced at the books stacked around Twilight. "What history books I've seen in modern libraries were written long after the fact, and tend to act like we came in like the cavalry and just rocked his mismatched socks with a blast of rainbow, but it was a lot more ugly, scary, and complex than that. Ponies were suffering under his misrule, and they suffered even more in the fight to get him outta there."
A soft smile returned to her dark features. "So when the smoke had cleared, and it'd stopped raining snakes, and Tia and I were putting the sun and moon up on a steady schedule again, it became pretty clear that Equestria needed to hear the good news. Coming down off of ol' Ramshackle's tyranny, a lot of ponies just didn't have a clear idea of what had happened. Signs were hopeful, but there'd been too many false dawns and switcheroos for the pony folk to know what was true and what wasn't. And we didn't have hornograph or crystal radio or pony express mail back in those days."
Luna met Twilight's fascinated gaze with a nod toward the window, where a constellation of two pegasi stallions appeared over the silhouetted towers of Canterlot. "Two pegasi brothers stepped up and volunteered to get the word out. Westwind and Sunchaser were their names. Typical thunder bucking sky stallions, all bluff and bluster and marriage proposals to every mare they met, they loved to turn everything into a challenge. They vowed to fly the full length of Equestria's border, stopping in at every settlement, villiage, and town to spread the good word and they swore they'd do it in a week or less. They winged it down to Mane Hat, which was the port town that eventually grew up to be Manehattan."
She shrugged at Twilight's quizzical gaze. "Don't ask me why it was called that. It was one of Puddinhead's 'outside yon chimney' ideas." She made air quotes with her fore hooves, followed by a shrug. "They stopped letting her christen new towns after that one."
Luna gave a light toss of her starry mane. "Anyway, it was one of the biggest pony towns around, and with all the sea trade was a good place to start spreading the word. So they set out from there, and flew west with the sun. They did the circuit in about a fortnight, finally landing, or I should say finally crashing at Castle Canter, which we know today as Canterlot, both more dead than alive and looking like they'd been run through a doozy of a wringer."
She chuckled as she gazed at the contellations. "Of course, pegasus stallions being pegasus stallions, the tale of their travels became a bit more mane raising and grandiose with every audience of doting mares they told it to. By the time they'd been fattened and feathered up enough to come see us in our new castle at Everfree, their tale was truly epic in its utter ridiculousness. Baron Munchorsen himself would have rolled his eyes at some of the whoppers they spun out at the royal feast table."
The princess of the night shook her head. "Well, Tia and I were a lot younger and more innocent in those days, and we bought it hook line and sinker. We proclaimed them heroes of Equestria, and soon everypony was following our lead and showering 'em with honors and praise."
She gave Twilight a wink. "And a lot of feminine attention as well. Which in turn caused the other pegasi warriors to want some of that thunder for themselves. Some of their drinking buddies stood up and challenged the veracity of Westy and Sunny's claims, and in turn were dared to make the run and see for themselves. Well, from there it kind of turned into a thing. I'll always remember old Cookie saying it was a great way for all the young wingbucks to burn off all that extra energy now that there wasn't as much fighting for 'em to do."
Luna ruffled her wings as she thought back through the long years. "Dame Pansy's grandson Flagstaff helped organize it into an annual event. Always a sensible bunch, those Pansys. They said once a year was better than having pegasi disappear willy nilly into the wild lands of the perimeter, plus a full field of flyers meant safety in numbers from the monsters and savage beasts that still swarmed on the margins of the realm. The first official race was held maybe fifteen years after that first run along the border, and every year the route expanded as more settlements popped up."
She rolled her eyes. "More pegasi bravado there, as a new crop of flyers tried to one up last year's winners by insisting that since the race was meant to be along the borders, that included any new additions as the frontier grew."
The night princess gave Twilight a shrug. "Of course, Equestria's expanded a fair bit while I was out of the picture. You could fit at least three times the distance Sunchaser and Westwind flew into the route it follows now."
She gave a nod toward the starry design of two pegasi drifting across the night sky. "Those two glory hounds had to content themselves with being the first ever Pegathalon flyers, and take it with what passed for grace that a succession of young stratobuckers were constantly breaking their distance record. I made 'em a constellation just to get 'em to stop being such big babies about it."
The unicorn scholar's violet eyes gleamed in the soft light as she digested what she'd been told. "It always amazes me, Luna, when you or your sister talk about figures out of history and legend like they're just ponies."
The dusky winged binarch chuckled. "They were just ponies, Twi. Just as wonderful and terrible and gifted and flawed as any pony living today. Some night, a thousand years from now, some bright eyed young mare is going to be asking me if the legendary Doctor Twilight Sparkle was honestly worried about entering an earth pony in the Grand Pegathalon. They're gonna wonder if you possibly had any doubt that the wings you created for ponykind were gonna go the distance."
She climbed to her silver shod hooves and leaned in to nuzzle Twilight's cheek. "And I'm gonna tell 'em yeah, you had your doubts and worries, same as any other pony, mortal or immortal, but you still had what it takes to raise your head, spark up your horn, and work your magic to make Equestria a better place..." She turned and started toward the window, smiling past her winged shoulders with a wink. "... and the rest will be history."
The moon princess lashed her ethereal tail behind her as she stepped up to the sill. "Well, as much as I love our chats, Twi, I gotta move hooves. Moon and stars ain't gonna run themselves."
Twilight stifled a yawn and gave her co-sovereign a wave and a nod as Luna took a final look back. "All right, Luna. Thanks so much for checking in on me."
The regent of the night shrugged. "Hey, no sweat kiddo. That's what friends are for." A warm smile appeared on her dusky features. "You certainly spent your share of time helping me get my head back in the right place after spending a thousand years with it lodged up under my tail."
Her horn glimmered, dimming the lights in the room as a breeze ruffled her wings. "Now why don't you ease yourself off to dreamland so you can face whatever 'interesting' things the new day has in store with a clear head. Bring Rarity around to Moonrise Court tomorrow so we can talk turkey about this whole royal sponsorship thing, okay?"
The lavender mare nodded drowsily. "Will do, princess. Good night."
Luna chuckled as she took off. "That's what I aim for. Catch you on the flip, honeydip."
Left alone with the faint jingling of the crystal berry bushes, Twilight smiled fondly to herself as she eased the lights all the way out. With a contented sigh, she laid her head on the open book, which to her was more comfortable than the fluffiest down pillow and never failed to send her to almost instantly to sleep.
The early edition of the Canterlot Chronicle thudded like a hay bale on the front steps of Sugar Cube Corner, taking its place among the other bundled newspapers that piled up as the delivery wagons made their rounds. The smell of baked goods baking and coffee brewing filled the air around the sweet shop, as its proprietors busied themselves in preparation for Ponyville's morning rush.
Their earliest customers were already setting out to begin their day, steaming cups of joe and crisply folded white bags of still warm pastries clutched in their hooves or balanced in cardboard trays on their backs. Delivery drafters, marketplace merchants getting the jump on setting out their wares, letter carriers, and weather patrol pegasi all stopped in, got what they needed to get their day rolling, and departed.
A pair of winged stallions hovered out into the clear, mist filtered sunlight, each carrying a large cup in the crook of their fore hooves. The younger of the two gave his companion a half smile and jerked his head back toward the interior of the sweet shop. "I don't know why you keep torturing yourself coming here, Soarin. I could get the coffee for both of us. It's not like your order's that complex."
The older, slightly heavyset pegasus gave a grin and a small shake of his head. "How would it look for my supervisor to be getting me coffee, Rum? Besides, I like mine black with a shot of willpower."
He inhaled deeply through his nostrils, his eyelids drooping as the rich perfume of baking flooded his senses. In response an angry growl sounded from his stomach. He tipped his cup at his young superior with a smirk and took a deep pull of the rich dark brew.
A brown cloud of atomized coffee blasted out from Soarin's lips as he glanced down at the stack of newspapers. With his green eyes wide in disbelief, he hastily handed his dripping cup to Rumbles, shoved the floating puff of coffee vapor aside, and lifted the bundle of Canterlot Chronicles to stare at the headline.
His voice rose incredulously as he read it out loud. "Earth Pony, Unicorn, to Enter Grand Pegathalon!?"
There below the large text were two photographs, one of Pip looking smart in his flight jacket and helmet with the artificial wings unfurled and a glimmer sparking from his teeth, and one a midair action shot of a corkscrew of black smoke trailing behind the maniacally grinning, double bat winged figure of Professor Destiny.
Rumbles watched him with eyebrows raised in puzzlement as the older stallion darted inside with the bundle of newspapers to purchase one.
Soarin slammed the papers down on the countertop, startling Pinkie Pie and causing her to send a boysenberry muffin spinning into the air. She'd been struggling mightily, against a persistent, full body vibration that shook her from her tail to the tips of her hooves, to transfer the baked good from the display case to a white paper bag for an eagerly waiting grey pegasus mare, who lurched up to snag the hurtling confectionary in mid flight despite an obvious difficulty with depth perception.
As the customer happily chewed on her catch, the cotton candy colored mare rounded on Soarin with her limpid blue eyes flashing. "Okay, mister pushy pants pegasus, what's got you galloping to get my goat?"
The sky blue stallion spun the bundle of papers around so that it was facing her, and urgently tapped a hoof on the headline. "Just look, Mrs. Pie!"
Pinkie pursed her lips and scanned the paper. Her eyes went wide as she suddenly started vibrating so fast she became a pink and magenta blur, then rose up off of her hooves and underwent a rapid succession of expansions, contortions, and implosions before snapping back to her normal frizzy maned self.
Soarin's jaw hung slack and he stared in disbelief as the pink mare gave a satisfied nod. "Ooh! So that's where that doozy was coming from."
Rainbow Dash lifted her hoof off of the blender's button and let it go silent, her cyan ear flicking at the sound of some kind of tumult in the next room. Her brow furrowed beneath the wet strands of her rainbow mane as she cocked her head curiously and lifted the glass pitcher off of the base, casually tossing the dripping lid among the litter of egg shells, banana peels, orange rinds, and scattered wheat germ that she left on the galley counter as she hovered off to investigate the disturbance.
A moment later one of the Wonderbolts' roadies came into the room, rolled her eyes at the mess, and grabbed up a brush and dustpan to clean up.
Dash took a deep pull of her smoothie as she came drifting into the gymnasium's break room, dabbing away the creamy mustache it left with the corner of the damp towel that hung across her withers. She saw her fearless leader Spitfire seated at one of the tables, a newspaper clenched in her hooves and her blaze yellow wings flared as she pored over the text through a pair of reading glasses. All around the Wonderbolts' captain, a knot of her team mates were engaged in a very animated discussion.
Shootin' Star slammed a hoof on the table. "It ain't right! Who do they think they are, hornin' in on our territory like that?"
Rapidfire rolled his eyes. "Cool your cumulous, kid. Just look at those crazy things. I doubt they could even go a half a mile before taking a dirt dive."
Fleetfoot flicked an ear. "I dunno. Sounds like they can fly pretty well. Almost as good as a pegasus, they said."
Rainbow Dash touched down next to Spitfire and craned her neck curiously. "What's goin' on, Cap?"
The lean older mare folded the paper shut and held it up so she could read the headline and look at the pictures, her orange eyes simmering and her ears laid back tightly on either side of her fiery mane as she stared gravely up at her star team mate. The chromatic pegasus' eyes went wide, her pupils shrinking rapidly as she took in the front page of the Canterlot Chronicle.
After a long, awkward pause, Dash nervously flicked her tail. "Heh... Wow, wonders never cease, huh?"
Spitfire stood abruptly, tossing the paper down on the table top and flicking her glasses off with a wingtip. "Yeah, they don't. You're in charge 'til I get back, Dash." She spun on her heel and made for the door.
The four other pegasi exchanged a puzzled glance, as the rainbow maned stunt flyer called after her. "W-wait. Where are you goin', Cap?"
The blaze yellow pegasus stopped at the door. "Cloudsdale. I gotta talk to the Athletics Committee, then probably Canterlot." She gave each of them a steady, hard eyed glare. "Stay sharp, squad. I'm not liking this crosswind."
With that, she walked out with a flick of her fiery orange tail.
As more heated argument erupted around her, Rainbow Dash let out a long, shuddering sigh and downed the rest of her smoothie. A queasy rumble bubbled up from her stomach and exited in a small burp. She peered down into the depths of the pitcher in her hoof, at the blades of the blender. "Me neither..."
Fluttershy raised a butter yellow hoof to her mouth as she peered at the newspaper through stray locks of her loosely bound pink mane. "Oh... my...."
She spared a sidelong glance at her infant daughter Blossom and spooned some applesauce into the tiny filly's mouth, while in the next high chair over little Bud's face, mane, and bib was dripping with the contents of his bowl. Big Macintosh let out a soft sigh, lashed his tail, and patiently continued making choo choo train noises over a fresh spoonful.
Applejack craned her neck to read the headline as she cut up a waffle on Windfall's plate. She let out a low whistle. "Tarnation, if'n it ain't one thing it's another with them gals, ain't it?"
Soarin's brow furrowed as he hovered over the table with the paper in his hooves. "I don't think you quite understand, sweetheart. This is a big deal. I think your friends might have bitten off a lot more than they can chew."
Fluttershy nodded gravely as she fed Blossom another spoonful, wincing a bit as applesauce splattered from Bud's tray hit her cheek. "The Pegathalon is dangerous! They fly for miles and miles, over deserts and high mountains and all sorts of other harsh environments. I've heard about ponies dropping out of the sky from exhaustion, or getting lost in the wilderness between towns, or just vanishing and never coming back."
The sky blue pegasus stallion set the paper down on the table and touched down beside Applejack with a pensive look on his face. "Yeah, which is why most competitors fly with a support team, or at least a wingpony. Celestia banned flying the race solo over a hundred years ago."
The blonde mare cocked an eyebrow as a worried tone stole into her voice. "But they only got Pip n' one set o' wings. What're they gonna do?"
The room fell silent as Soarin met the gaze of each Apple family member in turn before settling his green eyes on Applejack's face. "Well, I was kind of thinking... I mean the thought struck me as I was on my way over here... that I could help 'em out. I could fly the Pegathalon as Pip's wing pony. But... well... but I wanted to talk to you about it first."
The farm pony's sun bleached orange visage went a shade whiter, and she carefully set the butter knife down next to Windfall's plate and then stood with her tail lashing slowly behind her. "Okay. We'll talk."
She gave a jerky nod of her head toward one of the doors. "In the kitchen."
With that she turned, and headed through the door at a stiff trot. Soarin let out a sigh, gave a nod to the others, and followed.
Big Macintosh watched them go, another dollop of applesauce sliding off of his spoon and landing with a splat on the floor. A low rumble came from the depths of his thick barrel chest. "Why that ..."
He was cut off by his wife's gentle voice, an underpinning of iron in her soft tones that he knew better than to push back against. "No glowering at the table, big bunny. And no crushing your sisters' coltfriends' skulls either. Okay?"
She gave him a brief grin with a tiny squeaky noise, putting a period to her statement with as much finality as the impact that had driven his hoof print into the boulder out in the barnyard.
The huge stallion replied with a grudging nod, pursed his lips, and dutifully went back to striving for at least one spoonful of applesauce to somehow wind up in his little son's mouth.
Applejack wheeled on Soarin as they entered the hazy sun drenched country kitchen, with only one word on her lips as her quivering eyes began to glisten. "Why?"
The pegasus pawed the ground. "Well, because I'm an experienced flyer with a lot of wind under my wings, and I really think Harmony Aeronautics could use that. What they're doin' is important, and I wanna see it succeed."
She kept her gaze steady, as tears began to pool at the corners and start to creep down her cheeks. "Why?"
He breathed out through his nostrils, a solemn expression on his face. "Because over the past few weeks, you all have become like a whole new family for me, a real family, and I finally feel like I've found a home, a real home, here in Ponyville."
The blonde earth pony's cheeks flushed, and her voice cracked plaintively as she stomped a hoof. "Then why would ya wanna leave it t' go flyin' off, m-maybe t' vanish in the wilderness? Why leave your family? Why... why leave m-me?"
Soarin looked away from her, taking in the details of a kitchen passed down through three generations of loving mares, breathing in the heady scent he'd first smelled on a homemade pie bought from a beautiful earth pony whose blond mane filled the rarified palace air around her with the same perfume. "Because of how sweet it'll truly be when I come back to it, after I've really earned my place here. And how amazingly sweet it will be when I come back to you."
He met her eyes, green gazing into green from soul to soul. "And I will come back. I promise."
She let out a sob as they met in a long, tender kiss. The trembling mare reared up and pulled him into a tight embrace, her hot tears dropping onto his folded wings. "Ya better."
She stood on her hind legs, rocking him slowly back and forth as gleaming motes glowed in the shafts of sunlight streaming through the windows. Her voice cracked again as she whispered a refrain. "Ya better..."
The characters depicted in this fiction are copyright and trademarks of Hasbro, Inc. This is a work of fan fiction, and the author makes no claim on Hasbro's copyright or trademarks.